I am often asked what instruments I play. Even when I explain I am a composer and I don’t really perform, people want to know what I play, so I tell them. Literally speaking, composing has nothing in common with playing an instrument, but I feel like making an irreconcilable distinction between playing an instrument and writing music is a little flawed. Perhaps I am diving a little too deeply into the abstract underbelly of music composition, but I feel compelled to insist that each composer is an instrument on his or her own.
The term I’d use to identify my idea of a composer’s instrument is compositional voice, or tone. It is the idea that individual composers’ music possesses specific and personal elements that identify it as the product of their unique creative spirit. Beyond this crude definition, I think it is best to explore on a case-by-case basis. For example, Richard Strauss’ music often features direct modulations by third, or John Adams’ operas use a highly rhythmic and repetitive style of text setting. These personal tropes are particularly easy to recognize in the common practice period, but this principle applies to 20th-century and living composers just as easily, though one’s criteria may be less specific than the examples I’ve given. John Zorn’s compositions Forbidden Fruit and Chimeras are particularly illustrative of this, seeing as they are generically bonded by their stylistic diversity and convivial treatment of instrumental color, despite their dramatically dissimilar musical content.
I imagine many of my peer composers – those of us in college or graduate school – would agree that, despite the self-evidence of distinct compositional voices, this topic is not commonly discussed and certainly not taught as part of a music school’s composition curriculum. Truthfully, I derived this principle from allusion and indirect conversations, mainly with fellow students. Most of the composition professors and guest composers I’ve come across avoid discussing the idea of personal compositional voice or tone more than superficially. The reason for this eludes me: either they find the subject too complex to articulate, feel they must protect their students or believe this is one of the many ineffable areas of our art form, a mystery of writing music that must be learned independently through experience but cannot be taught.
Ironically, I believe the way composition curricula avoid a straightforward discussion of personal voice is leading many peers of mine astray. The contrived vagaries of music composition – namely, the artificial insistence that composition is too complicated to objectively analyze and judge – leave many impressionable minds lost. When faced with the fundamental and formative decision of doing what is right (in my mind, pushing oneself to develop an individual, personal style) and what is easy (mimicking the work of others or following a bandwagon), too many talented, young personalities in our field pursue the latter.
My epiphany on this topic occurred in an unconventional classroom at the University of Michigan School of Music: head piano technician Robert Grijalva’s workshop. Just like the role of mycology in John Cage’s Music Lover’s Field Companion, the craft of piano maintenance has cast light onto fundamental truths in the world of music. And, although I can’t deny claiming, “all I need to know about being a composer I can learn from maintaining a piano” is naïve; the parallels between the trades have forever altered my perspective on the best way to be a composer.
One such commonality is the piano world’s ‘tonal schools’, which equate to composers’ stylistic schools. The analogy is so close that, much like musical style, variations in pianos’ ‘tonality’ reflect culture and geography while giving each instrument – and instrument maker – a unique sound. Furthermore, piano technicians also struggle to balance the clear, quantifiable aspects of their work with its more complex and abstract elements. In other words, as much as piano technicians rely on math and engineering, they employ a good deal of intuition, just like composers.
Mechanics and instinct come together most dramatically in the process of ‘voicing’ a piano. This is the acme of piano technology because the work is extremely fragile and instrument-specific. A technician must artfully combine adjustments in the piano’s action, hammers and strings to produce the best sound for a given piano. Additionally, the instrument leads the technician to its best sound almost similarly to a work in progress ‘telling’ the composer where it needs to go. Before long, it was clear to me that piano technology’s blend of conscious and subconscious labor, explicit and implicit decision-making and situational individuality closely resembled the characteristics of music composition.
The analogy I’ve already made between works and progress and pianos in need of maintenance is straightforward. And, to view being a composer like being a piano technician at work is informative in its own right, though limited. The most important element I think a composer can study in this metaphor is the simple process of diagnosis enjoyed by piano technicians. A piece of music in the midst of composition is not too different from a piano in need of repair. Both objects are incomplete and must be improved in order to achieve their potential. Moreover, there are rigid parameters that can limit the kind of maintenance we can attempt on both the piano and the unfinished work. Whether this means an instrument’s range, timbre or idiomatic characteristics, the quality of a piano’s materials or any of an infinite list of circumstances, composers and piano technicians are both forced to find a balance between what they want to do and what a given situation will allow.
However, this comparison only scratches the surface of what piano technology can teach students of music composition because, if we accept the idea that a composer’s ‘instrument’ is their personal voice, it becomes clear that a composer is not only analogous to the piano technician, but also to the piano. My argument hinges on the equating the respective concepts of ‘voices’ in piano technology and music composition. Like the individual characteristics of a given composer’s output, pianos’ sounds differ from instrument to instrument. Likewise, both terms can be categorized into ‘schools’ whereby a new perspective on a composer or piano’s ‘voice’ can be gained.
Bearing this argument in mind, I believe if composers in my peer group were pianos, many of us would be in poor condition. We would not struggle identifying the importance of having a voice, but we would fail to recognize the necessity of individuality when we maintain it. It is far easier to copy another’s music or process than look inside ourselves, at the unique characteristics of our musical machinery, and determine the manner in which we should balance/manifest them in our music. Imagine how confounded you would be if a piano technician attempted to voice your Steinway piano like it were a Yamaha, or tuned it while wearing earplugs. The same can be said for composer who simply regurgitates, ignoring their intuition and, above all, the impulses of their personal voice as they put notes on the page.
Inexperience and insecurity, of course, account for a lot of the poor ‘voicing’ one hears in the work of young composers. It takes time to become comfortable with one’s personal creativity, the strength and distinctiveness of which varies from composer to composer. I have already mentioned the lack of guidance in area of personal development student composers suffer during their education. It is safe to say that composition departments are in a reactionary phase right now, replacing the strict aesthetic ‘requirements’ enforced by musical academics in the 1960s, 70s and – perhaps – 80s, with a spirit of total freedom.
I do not advocate the re-installation of the stylistic ‘fascism’ I’ve heard described by guest composers and professors, but I am disturbed by an unintended consequence of the laissez-faire instruction my colleagues and I presently enjoy: complacency. I fear too many of my peers refuse to push themselves and our art. These are many of the same people who would rather follow in the paths of others than create something on their own (the extremity of which is not important!). For whatever reason, their process of musical discovery ends after its first step – they find something that works on a basic level and refuse to make even slight progress.
I believe a major cause of this problem is a perception of destination; the assumption your growth ends at a given point, such as when you win that first award or get into that prestigious program/school. There is a failure to acknowledge what we accomplish in one piece won’t last forever, that success – whatever we define that to be – is not so much achieved as it is sustained. The same is true for maintaining a piano’s voicing: it is a fluid entity trapped in the rigid furniture of the piano and requires constant attention and adjustment year-to-year, even week-to-week or month-to-month.
In my mind, this is the most important lesson I have learned – any composer can learn – from the art of piano maintenance. Furthermore, like a piano technician confronts the nuances of each piano, composers experience a renewed process of discovery with each piece. With this in mind, I find the idea of composers’ “maturation” seems misguided. No doubt much is gained from time, practice and experience, but the creative spirit never stops growing: composers exist in a state of eternal artistic pubescence.
I’m attracted to this metaphor involving piano technology because, to me, it represents a kind of objectivity unfound in an increasingly disparate world of composers. On one hand our individuality and freedom has created the most diverse aesthetic landscape in history; yet, we also use a contrived sense artistic privacy to shield ourselves from the truths behind what we do. As Roger Reynolds controversially told my colleagues and I at Michigan in a master class last November: composing is not mysterious – he claimed it was not intuitive at all, actually – we just make choices. Unlike Dr. Reynolds, I cannot deny the role of intuition in the act of composing music. Nevertheless, I disavow clichéd aphorisms about our music coming ‘from our heart’ and other ‘impregnable’ testaments to how ineffable, indescribable – even divine – the process of music composition can be.
Being a composer is challenging. We must make sense of incredibly abstract materials, rarely enjoy absolute meaning in what we produce and suffer from amplified self-doubt thanks to our field’s shrinking role in America’s culture milieu. Yet, just like most professions, the path to success, the way to achieve one’s potential is easy to follow as long as you’re willing to put in the time and work.
Thanks to my experience with Piano Technology, I feel like I know how to do my best work as a composer and member of our community. The results of my career are inconsequential because I know I’ll be carried as far as my talent will take me. I know I will use my voice to its most beautiful and powerful because I’ve learned how to find it and keep it strong for all the years I’m creating music. It seems clear enough to me that our art would thrive more than it ever has if more composers were to do the same.